Google Docs: A Meeting of the Minds – Katie & Amanda

We’re focusing on Google Docs, an online word processor that allows people to create text documents and collaborate with other users in real time. As long as a user can access the internet and has an email account, he or she can access Google Docs.

In our example, we have chosen the option of a blank document. We’ve gotten a little meta, creating this blog post about Google docs by collaborating over our very own Google doc.

Any number of users may work on the same document at any point in time, and the document can be shared with others. In reference to this week’s readings, this could be interpreted through the lenses of both the reductionist and the interactionist views of distributed cognition (Zhang & Patel, 335). Zhang and Patel explain that while a group of minds can be better than just one, because there are so many resources in a group, more errors must be cross-checked, tasks must be distributed, etc.

The construction of a Google Doc:

Many of the icons found in the document are similar in appearance to a document that one might find in the Microsoft Word or Pages applications on a Mac or PC. With options like “File,” “Edit” and “Tools,” it feels like the space where we normally come to write and format a document. But despite this familiarity, these options have been placed on a new, interactive platform.

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Google Docs serve as a space where minds can meet and share information – we not only extend our ability to type (coherent) ideas, but we distribute that burden among more than one individual. This could be related to the idea of culture and cognition – our mental, material (computers), and social structures work together in a historical context (time) to create a google document, or an artifact (Hollan et al., 178).

This product is automatically saved on the Cloud, making Google Docs a virtual storage space for knowledge that exists into perpetuity. They could be a version of what Dror et al. refer to as a “Cognitive Commons” (1). This space allows people who are physically dispersed to interact with a sense of immediacy that is unlike anything created in Microsoft Word (Dror et al., 1). It almost seems like instant messaging, but the goal is to produce a joint piece of work. This distributes the cognitive load of typing, brainstorming, and editing, from one person to multiple people.

Plus, it highlights the social nature of group work and collaboration. In a Google Doc, cognitive processes are naturally distributed across participants (Hollan et al., 177).

Users can participate in a conversation in a few ways, assuming that they understand how a Google Doc works. There’s a chat function, represented by a symbol, where members of a Google Doc can write messages to each other. This function can be accessed by clicking on the text box.

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We understand the text box, or word bubble, to exist with thoughts/ideas inside of it. It’s how we understand what others are thinking and/or saying when we see it pictured over their head.  

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Google Docs also influence how we think about virtual identity. A “voice” on this Google Doc is a user’s ability to put his or her cursor somewhere on the screen and start typing freely (at the same time as another user). The cursor represents a voice.

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A user can only use his or her “voice” when he or she is “in” the Google Doc. And, the name of a specific user corresponds with the color of his or her cursor (in this case, it’s pink), which further connects the individual to the words he or she types.

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This space is also one where access has to be granted – users can “share” the document with others and restrict their access. Participants can either edit, comment or only view the words on the screen. It’s created by the users, making it a consciously constructed place where we can offload not only the individual process of writing (by typing), but other group-related processes like editing and brainstorming.

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The real-time aspect of Google Docs changes the way that people work and input/output cognitive data; you could have users on three different continents, in three different time zones, and all three could still effectively collaborate on a document at the same time. In this way, Google Docs facilitate distributed cognition.


Andy Clark and David Chalmers. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis 58, no. 1 (January 1, 1998): 7–19.

Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008).

Itiel E. Dror and Stevan Harnad. “Offloading Cognition Onto Cognitive Technology.” In Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds, edited by Itiel E. Dror and Stevan Harnad, 1-23. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2008.

James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 174-196.

Jiajie Zhang and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.